Category: Archive

Crisis deepens

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland and Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — Despite the Unionist Party’s threat to ban Bairbre de Brun, the Sinn Fein minister, from this Friday’s North-South Council meeting, informed observers believe that some form of meeting will take place between her and her equivalent in the Irish government, Michael Martin. Such a move could spark a walkout by Unionist ministers from the power-sharing executive.

However, the Dublin government is concerned to "head-off" growing nationalist anger at the UUP threat, which came after David Trimble, the party leader, met with the party’s governing body, the Ulster Unionist Council on Saturday. Trimble reached a compromise with his anti-agreement opponents, led by Jeffrey Donaldson, who were demanding a return to the "no guns, no government" policy, imposing the ban on Sinn Fein ministers attending the cross-border council meetings until the IRA begins to decommission. The ban was one of six proposals adopted by the Unionist Party.

One Sinn Fein spokesman called the UUP move as "a timetable for disaster."

The North-South Ministerial Councils are political structures set up by the Good Friday agreement that are of particular importance to nationalists as they are aimed at cooperation between the North and the Republic.

When the vote on Trimble’s six-point proposals came, 445 delegates supported him, compared to 374 for Jeffrey Donaldson’s even harder-line position. In percentage terms, Trimble secured 54.3 percent to Donaldson’s 45.7.

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Legal advice is being hurriedly sought to establish whether the UUP resolution stands up against the provisions of the Good Friday agreement. However, the Irish government’s view is that Trimble does not have the power to impose such a ban. There is growing pessimism among government advisors that a review of the agreement can now be avoided. Many feel that the situation may well unravel.

A meeting will take place over the next few days between the Irish foreign minister, Brian Cowen, and the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, at which the latest crisis will be on the agenda.

The Irish government’s strategy is based on the belief that nationalist hostility to the Trimble move cannot be ignored, but at the same time Dublin is anxious to persuade the republican movement to reengage with the decommissioning body.

The UUP leader was jubilant as he left the Waterfront Hall. "We must not allow ourselves to be talked out of this present opportunity to nail the IRA once and for all," he said. "Successive British governments failed to disband or disarm them. We, however, have boxed the IRA into a tactical, moral and political cul-de-sac."

Trimble admitted the policy differences between him and Donaldson were "essentially tactical." Donaldson said he believed the vote marked a shift in party policy.

Sinn Féin will not walk away from the peace process, Education Minister Martin McGuinness pledged, nor be treated like "second-class ministers."

The SDLP are similarly dismayed and the Irish government has also been left to pick up the pieces after the UUP voted to ban Sinn Fein’s two ministers from all North-South ministerial contact. Trimble’s sanctions were also described as a "provocation to nationalists and republicans" by the deputy first minister, Seamus Mallon, who is also deputy leader of the SDLP. Mallon warned that he would not be "complicit in downgrading the status of any fellow minister."

Although there is no explicit deadline mentioned in his proposals, the date for a review of the workings of Trimble’s plan, January, amounts to the same. History shows the IRA does not respond to unionist deadlines and whatever might have been possible on the decommissioning issue is now thrown into doubt.

The SDLP agriculture minister, Brid Rodgers, has criticized the sanctions plan, which she said had "serious implications" for the agreement. Decommissioning must be addressed, she said. But the disarmament issue should be dealt with solely by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.

Speaking at an internal Sinn Fein meeting in County Louth on Sunday, the party president, Gerry Adams, accused the UUP of stepping outside the Agreement by voting for sanctions against his party. "Sinn Féin does not hold Executive position by dint of patronage from the UUP," he said.

The sense of crisis was deepened by a renewal of the loyalist feud, which has claimed another two lives. David Greer, 21, a member of the UDA, was shot dead at the weekend by the UVF. On Monday, the UDA retaliated and killed a 63-year-old man who worked part-time in the North Belfast constituency offices of Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF. This brings to five the number killed in the feud since the summer.

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